Home Automation Means Opportunity for HVAC Contractors
Shrug at thermostat-adjacent business and someone else will answer the call
Take the temperature of home automation trends these days, and the reading climbs beyond smart thermostats, whose own popularity continues to rise. Homeowner attention naturally gravitates toward other devices once they become accustomed to the benefits of such a thermostat (which itself piggybacks on the convenience of TV remotes and smartphones — the grandfathers and uncles, respectively, of the “no need to leave the sofa” lifestyle).
The questions for contractors can become whether or not they are taking advantage of potential thermostat upgrades, and whether or not they have positioned themselves for the consumer interest in non-HVAC appliances that stem from a gateway event like a thermostat replacement.
Pursuit of that new business isn’t simply a matter of selling a new type of heating or cooling equipment, and that creates more of a business decision for owners and a skills transition or addition for technicians. In the public consciousness, the field remains open for something like “smart doorbell installer.” Is that … an electrician? Sure, many will do it at their normal hourly rate. Then again, so could a dedicated home technology firm whose core business is security or audio/video. Or an HVAC contractor could do it — maybe the same one who just made a good impression installing the thermostat.
How will people choose? In the old days, a homeowner might look up a niche service in the phone book and find no one listed. But in the age of Google, the user will receive results, and those will come down not so much to a company’s primary trade, but to who became ready to do the work and announced it.
One thing is for sure: Companies that have not prepared for that job and have not promoted that fact will definitely not be among the results.
CONTRACTORS WORKING OUTWARD (AND BACK TO HVAC)
As for equipment already in stock, that thermostat remains the key for opening the door to other jobs.
“I think the biggest trend has been in thermostats, with Nest showing the public what’s possible,” said Laura DiFilippo, president of DiFilippo’s Service Company in Paulo, Pennsylvania.
Some markets may have even more interest on that front than others. Jennifer Pierce, general manager/owner at Clay’s Climate Control in Linwood, New Jersey, knows that well.
“We live by the Jersey Shore, and many of our clients are seasonal,” she said. “Being able to heat or cool a home while they are traveling to their Shore home has always been a huge benefit.”
In DiFilippo’s case, the company expanded further by partnering with Emerson and offering the Sensi programmable thermostats, then took a bigger step.
“In addition, we have begun installing Emerson’s Sensi Predict on all of our full system installations,” DiFilippo reported. This provides around-the-clock onboard diagnostics on the system.
“It is slowly gaining momentum with our client base, but has required us to take time to train our staff on the benefits,” she recounted. DiFilippo’s commitment to achieving proficiency before job one translated to spending over six months on internal training before discussing Sensi Predict with its client base.
“It’s really a change of thinking for everyone,” she said. “I believe this is the way of the future.”
Clay’s Climate Control has taken advantage of additional opportunities as well. As public interest in home automation has increased beyond Clay’s first step into that sector with the Wi-Fi thermostats, the company has expanded its offerings to include video doorbells, indoor cameras, and outdoor cameras.
Shanklin Heating and Cooling, in Dalton and Massillon, Ohio, uses a page on its website to outline its own work with Nest. Summaries about two thermostat options accompany what amount to bullet-point elevator pitches for the associated video doorbells, indoor and outdoor security cameras, and the Nest Protect for smoke and carbon monoxide detection.
The company includes a link to request a consultation so its “smart home device installers” can increase potential customers’ familiarity and comfort level with such devices before making a purchase.
NEW BUNDLES AND AVOIDING STUMBLES
In Shanklin’s case, these products are part of a larger portfolio that includes geothermal, whole house generators, and HVAC zoning.
Diversifying offerings into home automation and beyond can lead to yet another set of opportunities.
“We are offering more bundle solutions with home automation than we have ever done with any other products,” Pierce said. “It seems that clients who want home automation would like it for multiple products, not just one.”
DiFilippo added that packaging Sensi monitoring as part of new installs has resulted in one change that makes sense, plus a chance to give her customers a pleasant surprise.
“It actually decreases the cost of offering a two-year traditional maintenance plan,” she said, “in addition to providing a more technically accurate and timely response” when something requires attention.
Of course, once a contractor catches up to customer demand, this area’s own set of potential challenges can arise, included a new set of customer expectations.
“Our most commonly requested feature that is lacking right now is the field support,” assessed Steve Silk, service manager at Clay’s Climate Comfort. “Our customers have had mixed experiences with the customer service lines they have available to them. And the contractors have limited resources in the support we can offer.”
Silk reported that one factor to check early on is the customer’s Wi-Fi speed and whether it is 2.4 Ghz or more. Newer products are more dynamic, he said, but that also means they have adapted to more modern internet speeds that some customers or areas may not yet enjoy.
DiFilippo expects the next phase of technology to tackle customers’ desire to minimize the clicks involved to manage one thing or another in the home. Often, especially in homes that have gradually increased their home automation devices, mixed vendors can mean something less than total interoperability or integrated management.
“What we are finding is that customers want to use as few platforms and apps as possible,” Silk said. The company tries to cater to that concern as much as it can. Sometimes that means using one of the Honeywell platforms, or sometimes Nest or another company.
Customers are not the only ones with hopes for future capabilities. Silk would like to see a “one-stop shop, technician setup portal” develop for technicians.
“Being able to completely configure a product before assigning it to our customers is a big part of the experience,” he said. “Some applications make this easier than others, and I think there is still room for improvement.”
SLOWLY BUT SURELY
This area of home automation surely has to work through some growing pains. However, the “pains” tend to be transitional, while the “growing” customer appetite looks more like it is here to stay.
Pierce noted that Clay’s embraces technology in how it runs its business and communicates with customers, and in that sense, “installing home automation products is just a natural extension of what we believe in.”
DiFilippo spotted one more way these products can improve on an aspect of the traditional business that many contractors have come to know.
“I think there’s an enormous opportunity for HVAC companies to expand into other home automation applications that could help with the ebbs and flows of any seasonal work.”
The opportunity remains, but beware: New technology’s invitation to cross old competitive boundaries extends both ways.
“I already see other industries discussing HVAC-like products with our clients regarding home automation,” DiFilippo said.
Many companies in the greater residential space share Clay’s goal of “offering the latest products to make the lives of our customers easier.” Such a mission statement, plus the desire to boost revenue, can transcend any particular equipment type.
With that in mind, some HVAC contractors may conclude that the best defense is a good offense.
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